In Big Sandy’s lifetime, there have existed two organized volunteer fire departments. The first suffered its end in 1938 of reasons unknown and the date of its original beginning are questionable. On September 9, 1948, the present Big Sandy Volunteer Fire Department was created. One of the first of many persons to ‘get the ball rolling’, with his long series of editorials and deep commitment was Lou Lawrence, then editor of the Big Sandy Mountaineer. In his August 19, 1948 editorial, Lou Lawrence believed that by creating a Big Sandy Fire Department, that department, ”could develop into one of the better volunteer fire fighting organizations in the state. ” Lou Lawrence’s prediction became fact and the Big Sandy Fire Department has held a high position in Montana’s volunteer departments for many years. In its almost 52 years of public service, the Big Sandy Fire Department has had over 220 members. It responded to fires and assisted other departments, reaching the east and west borders of Chouteau County, as far north as Chinook, as far south as Highwood, and to project fires in Cook City, Silver Gate, & Noxon. The Big Sandy Fire Department has been called on to serve its community by performing anything from cleaning a neighbor’s yard to combating a multi-million dollar grain elevator fire.
In its early beginning, the first Big Sandy Fire Department possessed no ‘fire hall’. The Great Northern Railroad granted permission for the fire department’s firefighting equipment, consisting primarily of a large two-wheeled chemical fire extinguisher, to be stored in the Big Sandy Depot. Some years passed before the firemen built the first ‘fire hall’, a one vehicle storage garage for the department’s old equipment and its new piece of apparatus – a hose cart. The hose cart was made of two wooden spoke wheels with a reel attached between, capable of holding 50 feet of 1˝-inch hose. When a fire was reported, the firemen pulled the hose cart by hand and connected the hose to the fire hydrant nearest the fire. Firemen then reeled off the hose and commenced to battle the flame. As time went by, the department was able to purchase more miscellaneous small firefighting equipment along with a four-wheeled cart to carry ladders and their smaller items. Then, in 1938, the organization slowly dwindled and there was no ‘official’ fire department.
In the fall of 1948, the Big Sandy Fire Department was recreated, reorganized and acquired their first truck, a used early model Ford Pickup with a 200-gallon tanks. In the spring of 1950, the community banded together and raised enough money to build Big Sandy’s first Public Safety Building. The structure contained three vital services for Big Sandy – the fire department, ambulance service and police department. The fire truck and ambulance garage was large enough to house the fire truck, ambulance, two hose carts and ladder cart. On June 22, 1953, a unanimous vote of the fire department members was cast to purchase a new 1954 International/Howe Fire Truck, the first of its kind in the state of Montana. In 1966 the department added a 1957 Chevrolet fire truck built by Howard Wiederrich to its fleet. In 1974 they purchased a Pierce Mini-Pumper with a 250-gallon tank and a 250-gpm pump. In 1980 the department felt they needed a new and larger capacity city fire truck. The department then under the direction of Jerry Martin, purchased a 1980 Pierce fire truck with a 1000-gallon tank and a 1000-gpm pump. In 1989 under the direction of Raymond Courtnage the department purchased a 1989 Becker 1-ton brush truck retiring the 1957 truck. This truck became our first responder carrying our extrication equipment to assist the ambulance service if needed. In 1993 the department purchased another brush truck manufactured by Willray in Fort Benton to its fleet. In 1996 the department put together a 1980 Chevrolet pickup with a slide in tank and pump to be stationed at Russell Dixon’s for a quick response to fires on the prairie. In 1998 the department purchased a used 1977 E-One fire truck with a 500-gallon tank and a 500-gpm pump to backup the aging 1954 International/Howe truck. Bringing the department’s fleet to a total of 7 fire apparatuses and two ambulances. In addition the department oversees 3 fire fighting pickups belonging to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation which are positioned through out our fire district.
Since the beginning, the present Big Sandy Fire Department has paid its operational costs through community fundraisers and donations. The firemen in this way, beginning with the Annual Fireman’s Ball in 1948, started many Big Sandy traditions. This community affair was billed “THE social event of the year, ”featuring: the best in dance music to the finest entertainment.” The firemen offered to its community “top performers”, numerous plays and games of chance. The fire department raised some $600.00 with this, their first fund raiser, and was able to complete the Public Safety Building. Although the Fireman’s Ball is no longer held, the Firemen’s Chili Feed is still going strong. The first recorded Chili Feed was held in 1955 and brought in $282.11 to the department. The Chili Feed has today become the social event of the year, and every year reminds the department of how generous and supportive our community is.
The Big Sandy City Hall and Fire Department Building was completed in 1977. The Municipal structure was constructed almost entirely from donations and volunteer help from the community. The building is over 110 feet long and 50 feet wide. This, the third Big Sandy Fire Hall, rests on the same location as the first on Johannes Avenue. Unlike the first, capable of holding one fire apparatus for a fire department of about 18 men, the fire station was capable of holding over seven fire trucks as well as equipment for its 28 man fire crew. The fire station also doubled as a community hall, holding many of the community’s wedding and anniversary parties. Also contained in the building is office space for the police and city offices, with a public meeting room. In May of 1980, a unanimous vote was cast for naming the building after Fire Chief Jerry Martin, who had held the position longer than any other from 1966 until his death on April 16,1980. Because of his deep dedication and being the one individual largely responsible for building up the Big Sandy Fire Department, the new city hall was dedicated as the Jerry Martin Memorial City Hall.
With the addition of second ambulance and a brush truck, the department found that the fire station in the Jerry Martin Memorial City Hall was becoming crowded. This and the need of a full time community hall, prompted the fire department, then under the direction of Larry Ophus, to inquire about the Montana Power Building, in October of 1997, after being informed that MPC was moving out of the community. At first the fate of the MPC building was undecided and the department could not get any information about the building other than it would have to wait and see. The department then contacted Pete Madison who had worked his way up MPC’s corporate ladder and was a former graduate of Big Sandy. The department explained its need for a bigger Fire Hall, and leaving our old hall as a much needed community hall. Pete said he would look into the building and keep us informed. For a few months not much happened. Pete kept the department informed but with all the changes in MPC at this time the fate of the building was still up in the air. In February on 1998 after feeling that Pete had heard all the arguments from the department had to offer, the department turned to an old friend of Pete’s , Marla Ray, to wrote a letter to him explaining her views on the department getting the building and what it would mean to the community. This fresh prospective brought the building’s fate to the front burner and Pete was fanning the flames.
With Pete Madison’s love for his hometown of Big Sandy, keeping its wellbeing in mind when the fate of the building was being discussed at MPC, he helped bring this dream to reality in December of 1998. On December 19, 1998 Pete Madison, representing MPC, presented the Big Sandy Fire Department with the deed to the building at the department’s annual Christmas Party. This new home for the department offers many benefits to both the department and the community. It also opened up the back of the Jerry Martin Memorial City Hall as a full time Community City Hall which is now overseen by the CHAT (Community Hall Action Team) currently under the direction of Patty Hannum.
The Big Sandy Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Department would like to thank Pete Madison for all his help in making this dream of the MPC building becoming the department’s new home come true. If it were not for Pete’s love for Big Sandy and the community, even though he has been gone from here for many years, the department feels this would never have happened. It is reassuring to see that the Community of Big Sandy has a lasting impression on its residents even after they move on.
More To Come